在英国，无力偿还债务的贫穷白人被卷入了一种契约奴役制度，在大多数方面都与奴隶制相似。有时候，仆人可以通过偿还债务来购买自己的自由，有时候也不会，但无论如何，在他们的状态发生变化之前，他们都是他们主人的财产。最初，这是英国殖民地中使用的模型，白人和非洲奴隶都一样。 1619年到达弗吉尼亚州的前20位非洲裔美国奴隶到1651年都获得了自由，就像白人契约仆人一样。然而，随着时间的推移，殖民地的土地所有者变得贪婪，并意识到动产奴隶制的经济利益 – 对其他人的完全，不可撤销的所有权。 1661年，弗吉尼亚州正式将动产奴役合法化，并于1662年，弗吉尼亚州确定，奴隶所生的孩子也将成为终身奴隶。很快，南方经济将主要依赖非洲裔美国奴隶劳工。在各种奴隶叙述中所描述的被奴役生活的严谨和痛苦在很大程度上取决于一个人是作为房屋奴隶还是种植园奴隶，以及一个人是否生活在种植园州（如密西西比州和南卡罗来纳州）或更加工业化州（如马里兰州）。根据宪法规定，奴隶的进口于1808年结束。这创造了一个利润丰厚的国内奴隶贸易产业，围绕奴隶繁殖，买卖儿童以及偶尔绑架自由黑人。然而，当奴隶逃离这个系统时，南方奴隶贩子和奴隶主并不总是指望北方执法部门协助他们。 1850年的“逃亡奴隶法”旨在解决这一漏洞。 1846年，一名名叫德雷德·斯科特的密苏里州一名被奴役的男子起诉他和他的家人作为伊利诺伊州和威斯康星州领土上自由公民的自由。最终，美国最高法院对他作出了裁决，指出非洲人的后裔不能成为有权享受“权利法案”规定的保护的公民。这项裁决产生了令人不寒而栗的影响，将基于种族的动产奴隶制作为一项政策比任何其他裁决更明确，这一政策在1868年第14修正案通过之前一直存在。
In Great Britain, poor whites who could not afford to pay their debts were swept up into a system of indentured servitude that resembled slavery in most respects. Sometimes the servants could purchase their own freedom by working off their debts, sometimes not, but in either case, they were the property of their masters until their status changed. Initially, this was the model used in the British colonies with white and African slaves alike. The first twenty African American slaves to arrive in Virginia in 1619 had all had earned their freedom by 1651, just as white indentured servants would have. Over time, however, colonial landowners grew greedy and realized the economic benefits of chattel slavery—the full, irrevocable ownership of other people. In 1661, Virginia officially legalized chattel slavery, and in 1662, Virginia established that children born to a slave would also be slaves for life. Soon, the Southern economy would rely primarily on African American slave labor. The rigor and suffering of the enslaved life as it is described in various slave narratives varied considerably depending on whether one worked as a house slave or a plantation slave, and whether one lived in plantation states (such as Mississippi and South Carolina) or more industrialized states (such as Maryland). Under the terms of the Constitution, the importation of slaves ended in 1808. This created a lucrative domestic slave-trading industry organized around slave-breeding, the sale of children, and the occasional kidnapping of free blacks. When slaves escaped from this system, however, Southern slave traders and slaveowners were not always able to count on Northern law enforcement to assist them. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was written to address this loophole. In 1846, an enslaved man in Missouri named Dred Scott sued for his and his family’s freedom as people who had been free citizens in the Illinois and Wisconsin territories. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against him, stating that no-one descended from Africans could be citizens entitled to the protections offered under the Bill of Rights. The ruling had a chilling effect, cementing race-based chattel slavery as a policy more clearly than any other ruling ever had, a policy which remained in place until the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868.